This Industry Viewpoint was authored by Dean Bogdanovic, Founder and CEO of Volta Networks
5G brings a significant leap forward in capacity and performance over 4G and will launch us into the age of “everything connected,” with IoT, connected cars, virtual reality, automated factories and more. However, these applications don’t tolerate delay - they are low latency and bandwidth-hungry.
The growth in the number of connected devices will be significant. According to the Ericsson Internet of Things Forecast, around 29 billion connected devices are forecast by 2022, and about 18 billion of those will be related to IoT. The migration to 5G is a response to this increase in devices and the nature and volume of network traffic that they will generate.
Service providers need to build and operate networks that can scale up to meet the demands of low latency applications. Enterprise customers play an important role is this scenario. The businesses paying to connect to billions of things – sensors, monitoring points and cars, will drive significant revenue growth. That’s why service providers will be spending so much on 5G – it is the foundation for new sources of revenue.
Delivering 5G = More Routing in More Places
Routers are the critical element in delivering any IP service, from Internet access to VPNs. If this new generation of low latency applications and services is to be successful, routing must move much closer to the customer – as close to the edge as possible.
This means we must shift from routing in hundreds of major points-of-presence (PoPs) to potentially thousands of central offices or even tens of thousands cell sites. As a result, we will see a significant increase in the overall number of network locations that require routing. And, this new Service Edge will need performance, capacity and intelligence.
Why Traditional Routers Can’t Scale to Deliver on 5G
If you tried to re-deploy high-density legacy routers, the cost structure would not work – traditional routers are expensive, driving a significant amount of both CapEx and OpEx for carriers. This is especially true when you add more routers and push routing to the network edge.
Legacy routers are designed for older networks that need less routing, and their business model would not work for operators that need to re-deploy at the network edge. And, cost is a major issue – routers are sold as proprietary appliances where the hardware and software are intricately linked, and customers get locked into a particular vendor and have little option or leverage on price. Even expanding a router, by adding a line card, can be expensive. You may only need three more ports, but are forced to buy a module with 24 ports because of the form factor of the router and module offerings.
Maintenance contracts are also large line item costs in the years following router purchases. Hardware can fail and need to be replaced, and software will have bugs that need to be fixed. And, the maintenance contracts need to cover everything – routers, software, power supplies, etc. Other costs from operating the equipment – such as power – can also become a financial burden as more routers are added in the new service edge.
Finally, it would be difficult (and cost prohibitive) to add more personnel to configure and maintain more traditional routers. These certified technicians are hard to find and can be very expensive to employ.
Enter Virtual Routing: Flexibility, Scale & Cost Savings
Virtual routing uses software, the cloud and (low-cost) white box switches, with an open networking approach that gives customers a wide range of vendors and protocols to choose from. This is more flexible that the (old) “vendor lock-in” approach and can significantly reduce costs. Also, supporting a wide range of protocols enables interoperability with legacy equipment, which protects existing investments and helps to keep costs down.
By putting routing control software and processing in the cloud, it is possible to scale up the network faster and less expensively, because you reduce the need to buy more hardware. And, virtual routing can be run on public, private or hybrid clouds, providing additional cost savings and flexibility.
With virtual routing, you can move faster, scaling up or down quickly as your network needs change. This speed gives service providers great flexibility. You can adopt a “pay as you grow” subscription-based model, so you only buy capacity when you need it, and you can also reduce capacity if you need to. The elastic nature of the cloud allows resources to be used efficiently, regardless of the scope of the deployment. This helps to control costs, aligning expenses more closely with revenue.
Upgrades are also done faster and more easily with this cloud-based approach, as they can quickly be pushed out across the network using automation and service orchestration tools. By leveraging technologies like containers and microservices, new software can be delivered quickly. There is no longer a need to manually update each router using CLI and a highly-trained (and expensive) technician on-site.
A subscription model also allows the service provider to combine both acquisition and maintenance costs into a single payment, which relieves the burden on CapEx.
Enabling New Service Edge Designs
Virtual routing will also help deliver new design innovations that are emerging in order to change and improve the network edge for operators. For example:
- Network slicing is a specific form of virtualization that allows multiple logical networksto run on top of a shared physical network The key benefit of network slicing is that it provides an end-to-end virtual network encompassing not just networking but compute and storage functions too.
- Disaggregated Cell-Site Gateway (DCSG) is a white-box cell site gateway device based on an open and disaggregated architecture for existing 2G/3G/4G and future 5G mobile infrastructures. DCSG is designed to reduce costs for service providers that have a large number of cell sites, and can reduce both CapEx and OpEx while delivering robust features, performance and quality.
Using network slicing and DCSG, different mobile operators could share a single white box at a given cell site while having their own virtual network. This type of sharing reduces equipment costs for all operators involved and optimizes the use of the white box switch.
While the promise of 5G can have significant benefits for consumers and enterprises, it will provide a fundamental shift in our approach to the networks that will support and deliver 5G-based traffic. The legacy router model will not scale in a way that can support the explosive growth of low-latency, high-bandwidth applications that are coming. That model will not work, from a capacity, cost or labor standpoint.
Shifting to virtual routing and cloud-based, open networking will give operators a new approach to routing, management and design at the service edge. Those who embrace and adjust to these changes early could have a significant advantage over competitors in terms of cost, scale and service delivery compared to those locked into the proprietary, legacy-based method of building networks.
Dean Bogdanovic, Founder and CEO of Volta Networks. Dean is a former Distinguished Engineer at Juniper Networks and is actively involved with the IETF.
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